The Adaptation Gap (and how to deal with it)

November 27, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Ben Ramalingam, newly appointed leader of the Digital and Technology cluster at IDS, and author of Aid on the Ben_Ramalingam post beardEdge of Chaos, shares some thoughts on ‘adaptive management’.

Over the next few weeks, Duncan has agreed to run a series of posts by participants in the recent USAID-IDS workshop on adaptive management, to share their ideas, insights and suggestions. As co-designer and facilitator of the workshop, I wanted to kick-off with a summary of my opening remarks.

Adaptive management is very different from traditional aid approaches. Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator, famously described how the strategic and managerial agendas of development evolved over time in a landmark paper. In it he argues that the principles of scientific management, developed by Frederick Taylor and famously implemented by Henry Ford in the early 20th century, have come to exert a disproportionate influence on the aid enterprise. ‘Fordism’ is about standardization and control, change efforts that are driven top-down, and a reliance on management planning and execution of repeatable tasks.

Adaptive management by contrast, (to the extent that it is clearly defined), is much more about interaction and change, and requires much more focus on emergence and context. Instead of planning and precision, adaptive management places greater emphasis on capacities and processes to generate productive novelty in day-to-day work.

To put it another way, traditional management assumes we have the answers and puts in place an engine for delivering those answers in as replicable a fashion as possible. Adaptive management assumes we don’t have the answers, and puts in place a network to generate those answers when and where they are needed.

So why do we in development need adaptive management? Because development is best seen as a complex adaptive process that emerges from the interaction of a whole range of factors and actors. It is fundamentally shaped by diverse behaviours across dynamic networks.  In such cases, traditional management doesn’t work, because it is based on an ordered and predictable response: an answer delivery system built on the insight, innovation and leadership of people who work far from the problem.

However,  the evidence from many different sectors is that responding adequately to complexity requires an answer discovery approach: an adaptive response rather than an ordered one, which tries to trust and empower those closest to the problem.

Ramalingam 1So how are we dealing with this? My concern is that the typical response of many development organisations has been to respond to complexity with directives and systems that seek to restore a sense of order and control. It’s what I call doing the wrong thing righter.


  • We assume user needs can be assumed, predicted, influenced, even over-written
  • We aim for large volumes and replication
  • We focus on pre-determined answers and offerings
  • We work in contractual ways that retains control at the centre and the top of the system
  • We work in systems where both the parts and the people are assumed to be replaceable

Doing the above ad infinitum has led us to teeter on the edge of an ‘adaptation gap’, which might be defined as follows:

“The gulf between the growing need for adaptive management and the level of capabilities, cash and commitment that we have in place to meet this need”

So how do we address this gap? Well, I think it is increasingly evident that knowledge and learning is a core capability for adaptive management.

In practical terms, that means individuals, groups, organisations and networks need to invest in enhanced capabilities to:

  • specify interventions that are relevant to context, drawing on insights of those in that context
  • implement interventions in ways that support the ongoing and real-time sensing of information, insights and ideas from the internal organisational system, from partners and peers, and most importantly from communities and others embedded in operational contexts;
  • make sense of this information, insights and ideas in ways that is relevant for the programme or policy, to support more appropriate, contextually relevant decision making
  • make appropriate changes and adjustments at a strategic and tactical level.
  • Do all of the above on an ongoing basis, in continuous cycles of ‘learning by doing’.

At a minimum, aid organisations that addressed the adaptation gap would,:

In case you missed it, the great post here on adaptive management and Sasquatches two weeks back illustrates exactly this kind of working in practice. But as Lisa points out, such case studies are rarely spotted, and even more rarely documented. We need to get better at learning from positive deviants, who are able to apply adaptive approaches despite the considerable constraints they face. And we need to network them together, to bring about wholesale change in the way development works.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. During the End to End Review in DFID, which led to the development of the Smart Rules and a whole host of adaptive management-focused reforms, there was repeated reference to ‘the battle for the soul of the organisation’. I think this applies more widely:  the relevance and value of the aid system in the 21st century is fundamentally dependent on how well we manage to bring about more adaptive changes in how we work.

That probably sounds a bit heavy, so let me give a last, lighter, word to Dilbert, who as ever, anticipates the trends in development jargon and spin by about a decade.

Dilbert on adaptive management